By Amanda Grace Johnson - 06/24/10 11:29 PM EDT
From Southern Europe to the West Coast to Eastern Market, Acqua Al 2 has traveled a long way to bring the flavors of Italy to America’s capital.
The legendary Tuscan restaurant — which opened in Florence in 1978, San Diego in 2000 and Washington in April — is poised to become Eastern Market’s candlelit go-to date spot, with its abundance of cozy two-top tables enclosed by rustic exposed brick and tin red ceiling tiles. Behind tall windows lies a thin corridor lined with a colorful mural depicting an Italian sidewalk on a spring day.
It’ll be worth it — perfect pasta seems to be Acqua Al 2’s gift to Washington. This is the stuff Italian dreams are made of, redefining the term al dente with a satisfying, firm bite and a nutty flavor all its own.
The salad trio is an engaging way to start. Red cabbage stars in one of the salads, tangling with curls of fennel, heady pine nuts and a tart vinaigrette. Another salad, the traditional Greek mix, has zippy feta but becomes extraordinary with the addition of summery scallions. A third salad, composed of simple mixed greens with chicken, is nice, fresh and lightly dressed, but struggles beneath the weight of too many briny capers. They don’t skimp here on olive oil, the quality of which is evident on both the salads and the plate upon which it’s decanted to moisten the homemade bread.
These salads are a better bet than the beef carpaccio, which stands a bit too dry and bland to make good on its inherent promise.
As for the traditional first course of pasta or grain, options abound. Plump porcini mushrooms peek out from the crevices in rich risotto. A second preparation of risotto features hints of fragrant gorgonzola cheese.
Corkscrew pasta flirting with artichokes and parmesan makes for a dish that’s light and simple but classic and flawless. If you’d rather take your bleu cheese with a pasta than a risotto, the kitchen prepares a gorgonzola-tinged penne generously draped in luxurious gorgonzola sauce — a dish so sinful and satisfying that it may be the splurge of the year.
Elsewhere, tomato sauce takes its delightful creaminess from mascarpone cheese, cradling clouds of gnocchi and strands of that same red cabbage featured in the salad. But here the cabbage’s sharpness could benefit from a counterbalancing flavor to offset its bitterness.
The menu’s second courses are meatier. Olive oil is splashed lightly across a charred New York steak that comes atop a tuft of arugula and rosemary-and-peppercorn focaccia. It’s an inviting concept, but arrives burnt. Red-meat eaters will be much better satisfied by the rosy filet mignon, glazed with sweet and tart balsamic vinegar. The meat is so plush it’s almost creamlike.
Also exceptional is the New York strip steak, which arrives swimming in a luscious sauce blending Dijon mustard, brandy, cream and perky green peppercorns into a brilliant dance of tastes. And though the sauce is what makes this dish, the meat’s so lovely that it could stand on its own to please the minimalist.
Carnivores may be disappointed by some of the other options. Chicken with mushrooms and white wine has potential but is undercut by its excessive saltiness. Veal with arugula would be decent were it not for a robust chunk of fat on its side.
As for seafood, I can’t help being puzzled by the dearth of options — salmon carpaccio appears to be the only order from the sea, even though Italians are known seafood devotees. And at the risk of starting an uproar, the menu is noticeably lacking a second-course option for vegetarians.
But non-meat eaters won’t go hungry here by skipping the second course. It’ll simply leave more room for the restaurant’s sumptuous desserts. Cross your fingers in hopes that the restaurant is offering its dessert sampler. A fresh fruit tart rests on buttery crust; a creamy cold cheesecake offsets the accompanying rhubarb sauce’s pleasant tang. The flourless chocolate cake is a just-fine rendition. But the star of the plate is the tiramisu, as sweet, gooey custard melts and flows around cubes of espresso-soaked ladyfingers. A generous blanket of cocoa over the top adds dimensions of both texture and flavor.
The service so far proves inconsistent, with incessant warmth and hospitality on one occasion followed by a visit characterized by quite the opposite. Every restaurant must work out minor kinks in its infancy, but Acqua Al 2 hasn’t come this far to let that stand in its way. Its pasta perfection, coupled with its early street buzz, portend a bright future for this Florentine outpost.